An artist's illustration of the Roman Space Telescope, a NASA observatory designed to unravel the secrets of dark energy and dark matter, search for and image exoplanets, and explore many topics in infrared astrophysics. (NASA)

Canadian camera to go on exoplanet hunting mission

In Sky News This Week: Canadian technology will be flying on the Roman space telescope in 2025, on course to capture images of planets outside our Solar System.

Years of support from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has allowed two companies to fly their technology on a new NASA exoplanet-hunting mission, according to Nüvü Camēras CEO Marie-Eve Ducharme.

Canadian company Nüvü, in collaboration with the Swiss ABB, developed the electronic cores for two high sensitivity cameras that will fly on the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (or Roman) in 2025.

Roman is a repurposed spy observatory with Hubble Space Telescope-like technologies originally made for use by the National Reconnaissance Office, then gifted to NASA unused a few years ago for space exploration purposes. (At the time of the award, the mission was temporarily called WFIRST or Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, before it was renamed for a prominent astronomer.)

Exoplanet missions generally garner public attention, and if past missions are any indication, Roman has the potential to show us a lot. The NASA Kepler space telescope discovered thousands of exoplanets before its retirement, while the ongoing agency Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission so far has found a few promising Earth-sized planets close to us.

This contract win is a coup for the Canadian company, Ducharme said in an interview. “Our cutting-edge technology being chosen for a Hubble-like mission by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recognized internationally for its rigorous risk management, is an outstanding accomplishment for Nüvü Camēras,” she said.

“This new Canadian signature technology into space comes after years of cutting-edge development funded by the Canadian Space Agency. Thanks to the added expertise of ABB and JPL, Nüvü Camēras’ EMCCD [a type of charge-coupled device, or CCD] answers the highly demanding space environmental and technical requirements of this targeted mission, for detecting the very faint level of light reflected by exoplanets in deep space.”

Extrasolar planets are very small compared to their parent stars, making these distant worlds difficult to observe. NASA’s telescope will have optical components available to block the light of the star, making it a little easier to see the reflected light off of any nearby planets. Yet the ABB/Nüvü technology will be crucial in making the tiny dot of light more visible for analysis, according to Ducharme.

Roman is a survey telescope designed to look for Earth-sized worlds in other solar systems, as NASA and other agencies go on a larger search for life like our own. The telescope does not have a mirror aperture large enough to seek life directly, but it can help researchers make suggestions about planets that future telescopes could target to look at the atmosphere for signs of oxygen, for example.

These investigations of Earth-sized worlds will likely take years or decades to accomplish. The forthcoming NASA James Webb Space Telescope is supposed to launch in 2021 (if it is not delayed again), but the telescope is more optimized to look at the telescopes of gas giant planets similar in size to Jupiter. It will take even more advanced telescopes to examine smaller planets in detail.

Emerging studies also suggest that we must take into consideration the environment of a small planet’s star, as red dwarf stars (for example) are prone to flaring and may send deadly radiation throughout the local neighbourhood.

CSA provided financial support for Nüvü’s imagery technology through its Space Technology Development Program (STDP), which is meant to support early-stage technologies that could be used for future space exploration needs. In Nüvü’s case, the camera not only has promise for deep-space imaging, but may also be used for cancer surgery, according to a recent release from CSA.

“Nüvü’s ultrasensitive camera produces highly precise imagery that can detect even the tiniest cancer cells, making it possible to remove those cells while keeping healthy tissue in place. The camera is currently undergoing clinical testing to enable Nüvü to sell medical instruments to hospitals in Canada and abroad,” CSA stated.

Nüvü is already thinking even further for future contracts. The company is in early-stage discussions with public and private institutions for “a variety of future observation missions,” Ducharme said, although no announcements are forthcoming yet.

The company has been around for a decade and creates cameras and controllers that operate in wavelengths ranging from ultraviolet to near-infrared red. The EMCCD — which stands for an electron multiplying charge-coupled device — aims to help aviation and space systems with high-performance imagery in challenging environments. Some of the metrics Nüvü focuses on when building the technology includes speed, format, field of view and minimizing power usage, according to Ducharme.

Sky News This Week is a biweekly column by Canadian science and space journalist Elizabeth Howell, focusing on a trending news topic in Canadian astronomy and space.